Crossing the line - what should we make of athlete transgression?

Dr Constantino Stavros

Posted: June 27, 2014

Imagine you are the Marketing Manager of a company that uses a leading athlete as an endorser. You watch him play a critical game of a major tournament; admiring the skills that have made him one of the best players in the world and a valuable asset to your organisation. Towards the end of the match he makes contact with an opposition defender who alleges he bit him on the shoulder. The incident, beamed around the world creates a frenzied outpouring of opinion and analysis. The sport’s governing body reacts swiftly by convening a disciplinary committee that bans the player for four months. Putting aside your personal thoughts, ask yourself what is the commercially correct decision to make next?

The above could be a discussion question many sport marketing academics around the world will ask their students in the coming semester. If so, the answer will be far more complex than people can imagine.

As someone that has been studying the business consequences of athlete behaviour for many years, the concept of a transgression, real or perceived, brings with it a complex network of relationships that need to be considered. And in the end, there is often no clear right or wrong answer.

In general terms, a transgression occurs when someone crosses a boundary – either a moral or legal one. This violation of a ‘rule’ or ‘norm’ can occur for athletes on the field or off the field. There is some debate as to which is worse and like many aspects the contextual nature will matter significantly. Assaulting someone on the street is probably seen by most as worse than assaulting an opponent in a game, given sport is often portrayed in battle terms and actions can be attributed to passion, exuberance and the medically-sounding contraction of ‘white-line fever’.

Actions on the field however can have serious repercussions because they are typically seen by many more people and are discussed within a framework of what is not only appropriate, but what is also reflective of the standards and expectations of the sport itself. Matters are further complicated by the unfolding of events in a game as part of a broader narrative. For example, if a player is being provoked by an opponent, is it ok to transgress and seek some ‘revenge’ at the next opportunity? Similarly, in a society where sport is often portrayed as win at all costs, how far can the boundaries of fair play be pushed?

Off the field the answers become much easier to categorize, but not necessarily easier to react to. The law provides a common denominator, making it easy to place actions into some sense of cognitive classification. Athletes who drive whilst intoxicated, assault, steal or don’t pay their taxes (just to use some examples) can be charged and hauled before the courts for justice. The network around those athletes however has to decide what, if any, action they need to take. A company sponsoring an athlete convicted of rape is almost certainly going to react swiftly and strongly, but what about if the athlete is fined for driving through a red light? Most of us would classify that as relatively minor, even though the action may potentially have led to the death of a pedestrian. We might therefore warn the athlete and seek to put into place some assurances that it won’t happen again.

Transgressions therefore are often more than just an incident. My research colleagues and I prefer the term ‘degenerative episode’ to describe those situations in a relationship where actions infer some kind of potential negative consequence. As anyone who has ever been in a relationship that has dissolved knows, it is often not one thing that is responsible, but a succession of events, or episodes, that have brought about friction. These episodes, if not managed appropriately will invariably lead to a relationship eroding beyond repair.

For a sponsor, episodes demand reaction (even doing nothing is a reaction) and these responses are not easy to determine. Firstly modern media demands instant comment, even though gathering all the facts and analysing them takes time. It is quicker and easier for the media to posit speculation than it is for a sponsor to state a definitive position. Sponsors must also determine what, if any, effect an athlete’s action may have on consumer sentiment as ultimately that is critical. While a senior manager might find an athlete’s behaviour to be objectionable, that is not necessarily automatically transferable to the company’s consumers, many of whom might have empathy for the circumstances.

Sponsor reaction can range from relationship termination (usually through the activation of a contract clause relating to disrepute) right through to continued support of the athlete. Both extreme approaches carry risks for the sponsor. By cutting loose a misbehaving athlete a sponsor might be seen as commercially opportunistic and lacking an understanding of sport where unwavering support is encouraged, particularly in a team environment. Those companies that do not act may be seen at worst as implicitly condoning the action of the athlete. A key factor here is often the nature of business a sponsor is in. A bank is far more likely to see a financial indiscretion more severely than say a food brand would. Similarly a sponsor who is from a government or community background might be more sensitive to indiscretions than a private company, particularly if that private company sees risk-taking as part of its brand framework.

In between the extremes there are a number of other options for sponsors. Those seeking to step away from the relationship might disguise their exit somewhat, allowing the current contract to run its course with little use of the athlete, and then not renew. Others may institute fines (typically by withholding payments), new contract clauses or ask for guarantees of future behaviour. Such acts are seen as warnings and can help make subsequent decisions easier given a process has been followed. Even the most empathetic of consumers can understand that a repeat offender is problematic to commercial partnerships.

For sponsors a further consideration in their actions is the notion of just how much consumers care about athlete indiscretions. If you just followed social media you would assume widespread outrage for most transgressions, however there is likely to be a silent and significant amount of consumers who are not particularly fazed by athlete behaviour that does not overtly cross legal boundaries. Some fans might not assume that athletes have to be role models and many fans may not even make strong consumptive connections to brand relationships anyway. In some situations a clever sponsor can potentially take advantage of athlete misbehaviour to highlight their association and build brand awareness, and then shape their reaction to facilitate some kind of improved brand attitude. A sponsor, for example, can play a part in supporting an athlete through a corrective process. Stories of redemption make great marketing.

About Dr Constantino Stavros

Dr Constantino Stavros is Associate Professor, Marketing at RMIT University in Australia. He is an expert in the marketing of, and through, sport.